Democrats may be locked in a struggle for the soul of their party, but that’s been true in almost every election cycle since 1828. What’s striking this time is how strangely polite they’re being to each other, beginning with Ocasio-Cortez.
“I am absolutely proud to be a Democrat,” she said after her primary win. “The Democratic Party is a big tent, and there are so many ways to be a Democrat.”
Asked by a reporter whether she plans to support Rep. Nancy Pelosi as the Democrats’ leader in the House next year, Ocasio-Cortez diplomatically ducked the question.
“I’m not going to get bogged down in Democratic infighting,” she explained in an interview with Jacobin, a socialist magazine. “Not because I’m trying to do the establishment a favor, but because we have a movement to build.”
Pelosi has tried to be welcoming, too.
“I had the privilege of speaking to one of our newer members who was elected in that district — Alexandria,” Pelosi said last month. “She was lovely.”
Civil war? Not even close.
“When Democrats have a civil war, we do it right,” scoffed Ann Lewis, a former aide to Bill and Hillary Clinton. “This year, we’re not out trying to destroy each other; we’ve just got disagreements about policy.”
The big reason the Democrats’ rival camps are trying to play well with each other is that they all agree on their top priorities: to regain the House this year and oust President Trump in 2020.
And establishment Democrats say there’s at least one thing they like about the progressive insurgency: the enthusiasm it’s engendered among disaffected younger voters, who otherwise might not turn out to vote in a midterm election.
“Energy, enthusiasm, a surge of new people: Those are all good things,” said Lewis.
There’s another reason establishment Democrats have reacted to the progressive insurgency with relative equanimity: The left isn’t winning all that many battles.
The number of Democratic incumbents who have lost their seats in Congress to progressive insurgents in this year’s primaries adds up to exactly one: Crowley, the inattentive fellow who lost to Ocasio-Cortez.
That’s not a socialist wave. It’s more like a ripple.
Scholars at the Brookings Institution have compiled nationwide numbers on this year’s House primaries. So far, they reported, 88 establishment Democrats have won nomination, compared with 64 progressives (and some of those progressives had the establishment’s blessing).
The left’s record so far “is good but not great,” the Brookings scholars concluded.
But they also noted an accompanying trend that may shape the party’s future: More progressives ran this year than ever before.
“For most of them, this was their first primary, and it’s not surprising if they didn’t do very well,” Elaine Kamarck, the study’s lead author, told me. “But if they stay in the process and run again, we could be seeing a generational change that moves the party to the left.”
That’s happening in terms of policy, as well. Candidates like Ocasio-Cortez have helped make once-edgy ideas like single-payer health insurance and tuition-free public college central to the Democrats’ conversation about the future.
Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet, that’s one reason she ran.
“A major point of my campaign: In the safest blue seats in America, we should have leaders swinging for the most ambitious ideas possible for working-class Americans,” she wrote. “You’re largely not going to get gutsy risk-taking from swing-district seats.”
Part of the reason for this framing is the media always wanting to attack the Democratic Party as a disaster. Part of the problem is the bitterness of Bernie hard-liners. And certainly part of the problem, as we see repeatedly in LGM comments, is the Hillary hard-liners as well who hate everyone associated with Sanders, blindly putting the love of their hero over the future of the party.
But in reality, what is happening here is what should be happening. You have a party with very old and staid leadership. Young people come up to challenge that leadership. New ideas filter into the party. The party is reinvigorated. Even Gary Hart–who is as responsible for anyone for Third Way politics rising in the Democratic Party–has recently praised this as a natural progression, although I can’t find a link to that story now. In fact, as AOC is showing, the left and centrist Democrats are actually playing pretty nice with each other right now. Lame incumbents such as Joe Crowley should be replaced with energetic new blood. The party should be moving more to the left, reflecting where half the nation is. These are all good things. Dems are not in disarray. The left has gotten much smarter, working in the party instead of outside of it. The centrists in decline aren’t happy and there are the Joe Liebermans of the world writing idiotic editorials against Ocasio-Cortez, but he’s a completely irrelevancy. Moreover, the left calls against centrist Dems are increasingly not about not running campaigns that can win your district, but rather than local voters often don’t care about the issues you are running to the right on, so it may not help you anyway.
In any case, the Democratic Party is in a much better place in August 2018 that I would have thought possible after November 8, 2016. The bench is rebuilding, there is energy everywhere, and the plethora of candidates who are going to run for president in 2020 reflects that. Whoever wins the nomination will probably be really good just to survive all the other choices. We should embrace this, not fret about it.